Dismantling Black Stereotypes In Business (And Life)
Ilias Simpson is the CEO & President of Radial, a leader in omnichannel commerce technology and operations.
Many people carry unconscious biases that have been reinforced since childhood. Racial bias can kick in from a young age and slowly shape how we see the world. While children may be born “colorblind” to race, it often doesn’t take long before they are presented with racial bias.
This unconscious bias leads to a world of prejudice, false stereotypes and microaggressions toward people of all walks of life, particularly Black people, and the truth is that this will take time to overcome. Racial tensions and negative stereotypes that began hundreds of years ago still exist today.
While we have made some progress, there is a lot more progress to be made. I believe we must work to fundamentally dismantle negative Black stereotypes and replace these misperceptions with an unbiased perspective.
Racism In Business
The issue of racism and unconscious bias plays out in the business environment in different ways. Primarily, I see it in the opportunities (or lack thereof) that Black people have in the workplace, the lack of the benefit of the doubt Black people often receive compared to white colleagues and the misperception from others that the white person is “the boss.” I’ve experienced this perception bias numerous times. A simple example is when out for a business dinner with white colleagues, the check is not handed to me at the end of the evening, based on someone’s unconscious bias of my potential standing within the group.
A recent study by the Gallup Center on Black Voices found that 24% of Black employees and 24% of Hispanic employees in the U.S. reported having been discriminated against at work in the past year. The study also revealed that age is a major factor in Black employees’ experiences with workplace discrimination: “Black workers younger than 40 (31%) are almost twice as likely as Black workers aged 40 and older (17%) to report having experienced discrimination at work in the past year.”
Early experiences in the workplace shape employees’ careers, and negative experiences can have an impact on trajectories and future attitudes about work. This creates a vicious cycle that makes the pursuit for a good job harder for Black Americans. Add to this the idea of “double consciousness,” which can cause inherent self-doubt and mental exhaustion, and it is not surprising that the pool of Black CEOs and Black people in the executive pipeline is extremely limited (paywall).
Dismantling Black Stereotypes
Unfortunately, there are many negative Black stereotypes that permeate our society, from “lazy” to “aggressive.” How do we fundamentally dismantle these stereotypes?
One word: exposure. Exposure can provide individuals the opportunity to get to know someone on a deeper level and see past the stereotypes. Oftentimes, we only know what we see in the media, but exposure can allow individuals to get a better understanding beyond the stereotypes portrayed in the media.
I think it is extremely important to build environments of opportunity for all races. However, getting to this point will require not only greater exposure, but greater understanding and representation. Here are some things business leaders can do to increase exposure and help dismantle stereotypes in the workplace:
• Mentorship programs: Mentorship can provide a way to increase exposure both for and to Black employees. Forming meaningful relationships can be one of the most effective ways to battle unconscious bias and stereotypes, so mutual benefit can come from mentorship between colleagues of different backgrounds. This is especially important for Black employees, who are statistically more likely to quit. A study found more than one-third of Black employees intend to leave their companies within two years.
• Networking sessions: Networking sessions help Black employees be seen and heard in the workplace, while also enabling them to take a proactive role in their career trajectory. Beyond this, structured networking sessions help Black employees facilitate deeper relationships with people who can share valuable information about opportunities, provide honest feedback and advocate for promotions.
• Intentional hiring, promotion and succession planning: Corporate leaders must ensure that these processes incorporate diversity practices and that these diversity practices become part of the internal policy. At the end of the day, these are the things that will determine an organization’s make-up.
While these steps can certainly help businesses move the needle, creating an environment of opportunity is an ethos that must be embedded throughout an entire company culture and leadership.
Defined By Perseverance
Black people in America have — and continue to — overcome so much. Hundreds of years of injustice and yet Black people have persevered. I often think of my family who lived in a more difficult time in our country and how it must have taken an incredible amount of mental toughness, restraint and determination to survive.
I believe we must highlight and bring more visibility to what Black people have endured and the challenges they have overcome throughout history. I believe Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman are incredible examples of will, strength and perseverance. From my perspective, today’s Black leaders — such as Barack Obama, Marvin Ellison and Oprah Winfrey — also carry these values forward and help us make progress toward a better future.
Working Toward A More Equal Future, Together
Racism isn’t static — it is constantly shape-shifting and transforming. While we might make progress, it often feels like that progress can be easily reversed. But it is also an opportunity.
As we look to the future of creating more racial equality both inside and outside of the corporate setting, I believe we must work together to address biases and increase exposure of the many achievements of Black people throughout the business landscape. Once we have that, young adults will have more positive role models to inspire and create awareness for opportunities in industries such as medicine, law, e-commerce, technology, aerospace and more.
As we change our systems and systems of thought, we can slowly dismantle Black stereotypes. It is my hope that we will instead think of words like “perseverance,” “determination,” “dedication” and “hope” that more accurately reflect the true experiences and values of Black Americans.
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